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Election Security and the 2016 Voter Experience

By Natalie Adona / 2016 December 2nd

Paul Gronke co-authored this piece with Natalie Adona.

The 2016 election was one of the most hard fought and divisive in recent memory. The Democracy Fund continues to be troubled by some of the rhetoric regarding the “hacking” and “rigging” of the American election system, two topics that animated so much discussion from across the ideological spectrum this cycle. We believe the long-term impact of these messages undermines the legitimacy of the election system and further erodes public trust in our political system.

Our new infographic is based on a national survey of voters after the 2016 election that was designed to provide the Democracy Fund a snapshot of public opinion about our election system and the possible effect of the rhetoric around election fraud. This data demonstrates that while most voters had a pleasant voting experience, deep concerns exist about the integrity of American elections.

Most Americans had a pleasant voting experience and expressed confidence in the outcome.

Let’s start with the good news: most Americans had a pleasant voting experience. When asked, 85.3 percent of voters said the best description of their voting experience was that it was “pleasant.” This is consistent with other surveys that capture voter opinions about election administration. For example, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) has found the majority of in person voters report having “excellent” or “good” interactions with poll workers and are generally confident that their own ballots were counted as intended. Results from the CCES also indicate that a majority people think that election officials are fair most of the time. (1)

Because public opinion about elections can be influenced by one’s political associations and candidate preferences, we broke down these results by party identification. It turned out that party differences were minimal. The percentage of Republicans who reported a pleasant experience (89) was higher than among Independents (83.6) and Democrats (82.5). Still, 4 out of 5 voters who cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton reported a pleasant voting experience.

Overall, these results show that election officials ensured not only that voters can participate in the political process, but also that voters can feel good about participating. To anyone who has ever worked in an election office, this is very encouraging. A positive voter experience is never guaranteed—it has to be earned. A significant portion of the report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) focused on the positive benefits that would accrue from a “customer service” orientation. A great level of detail and care is required to successfully administer an election and we want to take a moment to recognize and appreciate the hard work of election officials.

Many are concerned about voter fraud in national elections.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves – just because most voters walked away feeling good doesn’t mean that there isn’t more work to be done. Hearing claims that the election could be “rigged” or that other countries might “hack” the American election system may have heightened concerns about voter fraud. Even though there is virtually no evidence that voter fraud occurs at a scale large enough to sway electoral outcomes, confidence in vote counts decreases significantly the further removed the vote total is from the local jurisdiction. Survey data has consistently shown that respondents are less confident in state- and national-level ballot counts than in local counts. (2)

Lower confidence in national-level outcomes may make the public vulnerable to claims that the election system is “rigged” or that results could be “hacked.” As shown in the infographic, 39 percent of voters were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that an electronic security breach or hack impacted national vote counts. A slightly lower but significant percentage of voters (38) had similar concerns around parties and candidates changing election results to create false or inaccurate totals. Of that group, 35 percent of Trump voters and 40 percent of Clinton voters answered that they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that the parties or candidates changed election results.

Minority communities and younger voters were more likely to report problems and distrust with voting.

Other concerns emerged from our survey. Twenty-three percent of African Americans and 18 percent of Hispanics said that they felt fearful or intimidated voting, or had problems voting, compared to 12 percent of white voters. More than half of Hispanic respondents and 58 percent of African Americans expressed answered they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that an electronic security breach or hack impacted vote counts, compared to 32 percent of white voters. Hispanics and African Americans were also more likely than whites to answer that they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that a candidate or party changed the election results to create false or inaccurate vote counts.

The data revealed that age may also shape opinions about fraud. Twice as many younger respondents were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that a candidate or party changed the election results (49 percent compared to 24 percent of respondents 55 and over). It turns out that this pattern is nearly linear across smaller age cohorts, across all items, something we hope to explore in the future.

In one respect, it is encouraging that older voters, who presumably have more experience with voting, are more confident. But this also implies that younger and less experienced voters may be especially susceptible to claims about election fraud, and this could dissuade them from voting. To take just one example, we discovered that 17 percent of respondents under 55 reported that they felt fearful or intimidated, or had problems voting, compared to just 11 percent of respondents 55 years and older.

Distrust in the election system is unhealthy, and it’s notable that younger and minority voters overall were more likely to report fear and intimidation while voting and were more likely to express concern about election integrity. Given the sometimes brutal tone of the campaigns this election cycle, we felt it was important to highlight these data points as worthy of further examination.

Building Trust in Elections

Despite fears around voter fraud, polling place security, and calls for an increased number of poll watchers from the campaigns, local election officials successfully served the voting public. As we look through our data, we are very encouraged by evidence that voters are more likely to think the outcome was fair when educated about key security features. Our survey data confirm that independence, transparency, integrity, competence, and fairness translate into higher levels of public approval of the elections system.

Election officials, advocates, and others should think about how they talk about election security with voters and look for opportunities to foster trust in the system. Our data shows a need for increased voter education in three important ways:

  • First, the fact that certain minorities were more likely to report some kind of problem with voting should raise concerns about election conduct and hopefully will lead to meaningful ways for election officials and others to address problems in particular communities.
  • Second, because younger voters were also more likely to express concerns about election security and are probably less experienced in voting, election officials and advocates should focus their educational efforts on younger voters as well.
  • Third, voters from both sides of the political aisle have concerns about election fraud and are receptive to the information and rhetoric that they hear about election processes, which opens up an opportunity for election officials to show voters how their offices address these concerns.

We will continue to explore our data and are looking forward to sharing our findings as they emerge. One of our takeaways from this survey is that, even with all the good work that’s been done, voters need our help to understand election security and integrity and will listen when they’re given correct information. We hope that these survey results will trigger productive conversations between voters, election officials, advocates, and others about the processes currently in place that keep elections secure.

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About the Authors

Natalie Adona is a Research Associate for the Elections Program at the Democracy Fund. Paul Gronke is a professor of political science at Reed College and serves as an academic consultant to the Democracy Fund’s Elections Program. He is also the Director of the Early Voting Information Center in Portland, Oregon.
Endnotes

(1) The Cooperative Congressional Election Study has been administered in each federal election since 2006. The data are available at http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/cces/home.

(2) Michael W. Sances and Charles Stewart III. “Partisanship and Confidence in the Vote Count: Evidence from U.S. National Elections since 2000.” Electoral Studies 40 (December 2015): 176–88. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2015.08.004.

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